Reach for the sky: software company pitches Cleveland SkyLift cable car plan

Mark Patteson, Staff Reporter

Students, family and alumni who attended the Blue Block Party during Homecoming may have noticed a trailer holding an unusual capsule: A demonstration cable car for SkyLift, a proposed system of 11 cable car stations connecting attractions along Lake Erie and Cleveland’s waterways.

Case Western Reserve University was just one of many stops in the cable car’s lofty campaign across the city to generate buzz for the project. Proposed and developed by local software company LeanDog, the SkyLift hopes to provide a practical and innovative solution to the problem of expanding transportation infrastructure on the waterfront.

Most cable car systems appear in the mountains, where they can operate year-round despite harsh winds and winter conditions, and in densely populated areas, where they avoid interference with existing infrastructure by simply gliding overhead.

With its offices floating on a boat on the waterfront, LeanDog recognized the great demand for lakeside attractions, but was also intimately connected with the problems of accessing them. Looking at cable cars around the world, including the New York Aerial Tramway over the East River and the London 2012 Olympics cable car system over the Thames river, LeanDog saw that a similar system could efficiently bypass Cleveland’s waterways, highways and railroads.

While it may seem unusual for a software company to lead the way in a cable car venture, John Stahl, president of LeanDog, believes it was a natural fit. Speaking of the company’s culture, Stahl said, “We are analytical people, we are software people and we thought ‘how can we solve this problem?’”

Beyond improving transportation and access, SkyLift also hopes to provide passengers with digital entertainment and information, a concept LeanDog calls “Transportainment.” Stahl hopes to tailor each trip to the users.

“We really want to customize who you are and why you are in Cleveland and deliver that experience,” Stahl said.

Stahl also believes that the cars could be an educational tool for students and visitors to learn about Cleveland. As the car passes a popular attraction, prominent business or cultural landmark, it could tell a story to passengers or teach them about the history, science and arts aspects of an area.

Despite the grand ambitions for the proposal, it is still just that. It still has many obstacles before construction can begin. LeanDog is currently working on a feasibility study to determine the cost, economic impact and engineering requirements of the system.

LeanDog launched a nonprofit campaign on Indiegogo in August to fund the feasibility studies but has only raised $5,000 of the $500,000 goal. Despite the flashy demonstrations across the city and significant buzz from social media, Stahl called the Indiegogo campaign a “complete failure.”

“Everybody loves the idea but they wouldn’t put five dollars to it,” he said. “It is a frustrating trend.”

The same attitude was apparent at the Blue Block Party. Freshman Daniel Truax, who visited the demonstration cable car with his family, said, “It’s a really cool idea and any investment in Cleveland’s infrastructure is great.” But when asked if he would donate the minimum five dollars for the Indiegogo campaign, he joked, “I don’t have that kind of money. I’m in college.”

Despite the lackluster Indiegogo performance, Stahl still has high hopes for the project. LeanDog has built a broad coalition of civic and business supporters including the Greater Cleveland Partnership and RTA. Stahl has also personally invested $150,000 into Skylift, which he plans to fund entirely with private money.

Despite the challenges ahead, LeanDog will work on SkyLift one leg at a time to prove that the idea works. “We still haven’t found a reason to think it’s a bad idea,” Stahl said. “It’s going to take collaboration from everybody.”